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Opponents of new park fees plan to appeal

HUDSON BEACH — Two dollar beach parking may not sound like much, but Mike Malacos worries it could make a family thinking about an ice cream stop instead keep driving.

"Right now people are struggling to make ends meet as it is," said Malacos, who owns the Inn on the Gulf, an 18-room hotel and restaurant. "It's going to be, 'No, let's don't go to Hudson Beach and get ice cream.' "

Malacos and others expect to make a last-minute appeal Tuesday for Pasco commissioners to scrap a plan that includes $2 parking fees at a dozen parks, including Hudson Beach; new charges for youth leagues and boat launching; and increased fees for camping and park shelter rentals.

The charges would go into effect in the coming months.

Tuesday is the final hearing for the 2010-11 budget, which assumes that the new fees will be in place and raise nearly $877,000 next year for the parks and recreation program.

Without those fees, commissioners would either have to raise taxes — by about $8 for a home valued at $200,000 — or make significant cuts, which include closing some of the parks twice a week and shuttering swimming pools at Land O'Lakes Recreation Center and Veterans Memorial Park in Hudson.

Commissioners voted in favor of the new fees two weeks ago after talking about them throughout the summer. Commissioner Jack Mariano, whose district includes Hudson, voted against the measure, saying he thought most people would prefer to pay a little more in property taxes than pay the fees.

The bigger parks, which have electricity, would get meters, which print out tickets for visitors to put on their dashboards. The smaller parks would use "iron rangers," a voluntary system in which visitors would put their money in envelopes. The cost of the meters and rangers is expected to cost around $33,000.

County workers who patrol the parks could write $30 ordinance violations, which must be handed to the offenders, but they lack the authority to write traffic citations that could be left on the windshield.

Mariano said charging fees at Hudson Beach could cause some of the biggest headaches because of the number of restaurants and shops whose customers often park in public spaces.

Parks director Rick Buckman acknowledged he isn't quite sure how the system will work at Hudson Beach, where officials will likely cut off the fees near sunset.

"We're kind of unsure on the logistics," Buckman said.

He said he'll zero in first on setting up the new systems at the larger regional parks, such as Starkey, the Anclote parks and Withlacoochee. Smaller parks would come later once his staff works out the logistics.

Mariano said he was troubled by the lack of details for enforcement at Hudson Beach. "They don't have a full plan yet," he said.

Not every business owner at Hudson Beach is opposed to the new $2 parking fees. Sam's at Hudson Beach, one of the busiest restaurants in that area, might consider validating parking if its customers end up in county parking spaces.

Manager Linda Guadagnolo said she'd support the fees on two conditions: If the revenue results in improvements at the beach, and if the new system is organized and predictable.

"I can see pros and cons," she said. "If they need to do it to supplement taxes, that's fine. It may help us."

• • •

The park entrance fees aren't the only ones stirring up controversy. Leaders of some Hudson youth sports leagues are also opposed to the new co-sponsored league fees: $10 for Pasco kids, $5 for Pasco kids on free or reduced-price lunch, $15 for out-of-county players.

Children and teens who play soccer in the Florida Coast Futbol league, for instance, already pay $90 each season for gear and to help offset the costs of lighting and striping at the county's Denton Avenue fields, said Pat Jones, vice commissioner of recreational programing for the league.

Jones said the problem is that most families have more than one child, and many of those children play more than one sport.

"It's only 10 bucks, but it still is a hit," said Jones. "I understand (the) reasoning. I just don't agree with putting this burden back on the people right now."

The roughly 25 co-sponsored youth leagues have about 16,000 participants. Buckman said he'd received endorsements for the fees from some of the leagues, which last year began having to pay to stripe the fields they use due to budget cuts.

• • •

It's hard to say whether a commission that has supported the fees all summer long will do an about-face on the very evening it must finalize the budget. The e-mails of protest have been rolling in since the last board meeting.

"Unfortunately, parks and libraries are those items that are going to have the biggest budget hits of all the departments," said Commissioner Ted Schrader. "I just don't know where the money is going to come from."

"It's kind of surprising it's coming out at the last budget meeting," said Buckman. "Right now, our whole department is on pins and needles because we thought we knew where we were going and now we're unsure."

Meanwhile, Malacos, who said he'd rather pay higher taxes than the fees, is taking a page from the Centennial Park Library supporters, who rallied to keep that facility open after closing it seemed a done deal.

He planned to collect petition signatures at Hudson Beach all weekend. His goal: 3,000 signatures — about the same number the library patrons got.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

FaSt facts

Proposed park and rec fees

Parking fees would be $2 per carload, or $60 for an annual pass. The fees would be charged at: Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, Anclote River Park, Anclote Gulf Park, Crews Lake Park, Withlacoochee River Park, Suncoast Parkway Trail Head, Eagle Point Park, Moon Lake Park, Robert K. Rees Park, Key Vista Nature Park and Robert J. Strickland Memorial Park, better known as Hudson Beach.

Other fees include:

• Launching a boat at Hudson Beach would be $5 a day (or $50 a year).

• Children who play in co-sponsored youth leagues would also now owe $10 per season. (Kids on free and reduced-price lunch would pay $5; nonresidents would owe $15.)

• Adult softball teams would see team rates increase from $375 to $475, and camping rates would go up by $5 per night.

Opponents of new park fees plan to appeal 09/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 3:09pm]

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